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Self-folding origami robot climbs, swims, carries loads

Researchers hope the centimeter-long robots can be used for medical purposes in the human body.

By Stephen Feller
Self-folding origami robot climbs, swims, carries loads
The MIT researchers' centimeter-long origami robot after assembling itself through a series of folds. Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., June 12 (UPI) -- Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a tiny, printable, origami-like robot that weighs a third of a gram, can swim, climb and carry a load twice its weight, and folds itself up when heated.

The robot was presented as a finalist for best paper at the 2015 IEEE Robotics and Automation Society's annual conference in Seattle.

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"Making small robots is particularly challenging, because you don't just take off-the-shelf components and bolt them together," said Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, in a press release. "It's a challenging angle of robotics, and they've been able to solve it."

"They use digital manufacturing techniques so that the intelligence of the manufacturing is embedded in the material," Lipson adds. "I think the techniques they describe would scale to smaller and smaller dimensions, so they by no means have reached a limit."

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The robot is printed as three sheets, with a polyvinyl chloride sheet between two others, which fold when heated. Movement of the sheets is controlled by magnetic or electrical fields, depending on the materials used to fabricate the robot, and was based on the folds of origami techniques.

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Using heat and applying magnetic fields, the middle sheet is caused to contract, which forces the two outer sheets, which have slits cut in their sides, to form "feet." Further manipulation of the magnetic fields allows it to move forward and backward. The centimeter-long robots can move about four body-lengths per second and were shown in experiments to be able to swim, climb an incline and walk along difficult terrain, and carry a load up to twice its weight.

Researchers hope the tiny robots can be injected into the human body to complete health-related interventions, fold themselves up, and then dissolve in the body, which they've already been shown to do in lab experiments.

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A paper detailing the robot is published at the MIT website.

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